Mr. Singh Goes To Washington

By Gautham Nagesh

Chances are if you're brown or live in DC you've read this piece on the emergence of the Indian-American political scene, which was published Tuesday in Roll Call. I don't normally read RC since I have access to the vastly superior CongressDaily, but this piece does not serve as a great introduction to their work.

The article covers familiar ground, dealing mostly in stereotypes and the same cast of desi Democratic insiders who should be familiar to anyone who lives inside the Beltway. Toeplitz discusses three desi Democrats (two of whom are doctors, of course) running for Congress next year and their varying levels of success in fundraising. Again, nothing new here. I would be interested to know the source for this statement, however:

Although Jindal is the highest-ranking Indian-American elected to office, the community as a whole leans to the political left, as demonstrated by the trio of Democratic Congressional candidates running next year.

There's no link or reference, and it's not a quote, so I assume this is based on anecdotal evidence since I've never seen national polling or Census data on the of party identification of Indian-American registered voters. While it makes sense demographically for Indian-Americans as a whole to lean Democratic, my suspicion is that the fundraising numbers are much closer than one would initially think; many of the "Aunty and Uncle generation," as the article calls them, are professionals or entrepreneurs and lean Republican. Of course, Bobby Jindal is the only conservative name-checked; there's no mention of candidates like Nikki Haley or quotes from desi Republicans. It's almost like they don't exist!

There's also a mention of Iraq War veteran and Democrat Ashwin Madia, who lost a congressional race in Minnesota last fall. Despite his military background and raising over $2.4 million, Madia was soundly defeated in the general election. Aside from Jindal, Madia has been the most viable desi candidate for Congress in recent years thanks to his impressive military record. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a debate-watching party during the campaign last fall, but came away surprisingly underwhelmed.

The really interesting part of the article comes when we run into Maryland State House Majority leader Kumar Barve, one of the elder statesmen among desi Dems. Despite relying on them for financial and political support, Barve apparently doesn't have a very high opinion of people who look like him:

"In the Indian-American community, you have to have another person ask on your behalf in order to be successful," Barve said. "Because Indians don't want to give their money to anybody. We're cheap."

Interesting. He should tell that to the desis across the country who've been coming together as their own unofficial little PACs for years now, including those back in my hometown. Not to mention the countless Indian-Americans who donate to other worthy causes. It's worth mentioning that the Maryland desi community is hardly reflective of some universal reality for Indian-Americans. It certainly doesn't speak to my experience growing up in Southern Michigan.

If I sound a little frustrated, it's because I'm tired of reading the same old article about how "Indian" used to equal "doctor" or "engineer," but now it encompasses all these other fun and exciting possibilities, like i-banking and politics! Then again, let's be serious: a couple doctors running for Congress is hardly the desi community finding its voice. More likely a few would-be politicans realized post-Obama that race and a funny name are no longer insurmountable barriers to running for office. Now that's a topic I would be interested in reading about. But we have no quotes on that.

The other problem with the simplistic, brown-people-finding-their-way-through-democracy storyline is how it ignores the deeply nuanced reality and varying levels of political engagement that already exist within the community. My own family is a perfect example. My parents probably fit the stereotype of first-generation Indian-Americans on the surface; they are both physicians, largely apolitical and uninterested in getting involved publicly beyond voting. If someone like Ashwin Madia or Manan Trivedi called them up and asked them for money, they would probably be justifiably skeptical, leading someone like Barve to call them cheap:

"In the '90s, it was like pulling teeth getting Indian-Americans to part with their money," Barve said. "They just didn't understand the importance of having one of their own at the table."

Except that my parents aren't reluctant to donate because they are cheap or unwilling; it's because they realize that their political interests don't always coincide with a candidate's simply because their skin happens to be of the same hue. (Also, interesting use by Barve of the word "they" rather than "we".) Why exactly would a small business owner in Michigan care who represents suburban Minneapolis in the House? Beyond nebulous party loyalty that may or may not compel a donation, this seems mostly like a naked appeal to racial solidarity. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't think resisting tribalism makes you inherently cheap.

The article also includes the obligatory quote about emulating the Jewish community except that unlike the Jewish community, Indian-Americans have not developed a meaningful political coalition with defined policy goals. The one exception may be on U.S. foreign policy as it relates to India, which is understandably a concern for many first-generation Indian-Americans. Curiously, many second-generation Indian-American candidates seem to avoid engaging this topic, or at least to avoid espousing any particular support for India or its interests, despite the potential fundraising appeal. Barve seems to get the importance of the appeal, though I'm not sure how much influence you can have on foreign policy from the Maryland State Legislature.

Furthermore, my parents' lack of involvement in politics is not a consequence of them immigrating from India like the mark they all get from the smallpox vaccination. It's because both of them grew up with parents who were in public life, which soured them on the prospect. I have another friend back home whose father is one of the biggest political donors in the state. He's Indian and Gujju. I know, I bet I just blew Kumar Barve's mind. And despite my parents' lack of involvement in politics, they have two children who are deeply involved in it and even live in the DMV to make it our careers.

Through living in the District I've come to know a number of desis working in political jobs at every rung of the ladder, quietly helping decisions get made and laws get enacted. There are more of us coming up, but it's not because we suddenly comprehend the importance of politics. It's simply because there are more Indian-Americans now, many of whom were born here and can vote and take an interest in their country. If someone was writing their stories as individuals, I would be interested in reading them. I even pitched an article to The Atlantic about what I see as the real story on Indian-American political involvement, which is how people in American are funding parties that promote hate and divisiveness in India. I hope to write that article at some point in the near future. In the meantime, I'm open to suggestions for some better reading.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/10/mr-singh-goes-to-washington/28762/